In this transient time of fast-paced technology and ever-present social media, it’s rare for most entities to withstand the test of time. But last month the American Botanical Council (ABC) did something extraordinary: the group celebrated its 25th year of education and research on the science-based health benefits of herbs and medicinal plants, and looks forward to next year when it will see its HerbalGram peer-reviewed journal celebrate 30 years of publication, with the 100th issue going to print in late 2013.
Formally established in 1988 by founder and executive director, Mark Blumenthal, along with ethnobotanist James A. Duke, PhD, and the late pharmacognosist Professor Norman R. Farnsworth, PhD, ABC was created to support the HerbalGram newsletter, the inaugural issue of which was created in 1983 by Mr. Blumenthal and his colleague Rob McCaleb (who at the time was director of research of Celestial Seasonings) to be the official grassroots newsletter of the newly-created American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) and the new Herb Research Foundation (HRF).
“At that time there were few fax machines and no e-mail or Internet. So HerbalGram started as a newsletter to keep people in the botanical community (industry, researchers, et al.) informed about recent herbal research (there was very little back then), media coverage (ditto), market conditions, conferences, etc.,” recalled Mr. Blumenthal.
After five years of publishing HerbalGram for AHPA and HRF, Mr. Blumenthal started ABC as a vehicle to launch the publication out of its newsletter-style format and into a more magazine-like entity, “sort of a Scientific American of herbs,” he said.
Flash forward 30 years and the ABC now produces four peer-reviewed publications: HerbalGram (quarterly); HerbalEGram (monthly); HerbClip (every two weeks), and Herbal News and Events (weekly).
An increasingly digital world also led ABC to expand its education methods online. ABC recently added a new database to its online resources: The ABC Clinical Guide to Herbs, a reference book, available through ABC’s website that allows members to search through therapeutic monographs and clinical study details on 30 best-selling herbs. And though it likely couldn’t have been imagined when HerbalGram first began, all of the articles and full-color photographs found in each physical edition have been rendered into a digital, flip-page version of the journal for a smartphone or tablet computer viewing experience.
The non-profit group has also continued to use its robust outreach to publish books and monographs and deliver multiple annual media addresses. ABC also created a successful internship program for pharmacy doctoral students from the University of Texas College of Pharmacy and dietitians from Texas State University.
The More Things Change…
Looking back, Mr. Blumenthal said the ABC has witnessed a dramatic shift in the size of the dietary supplement market, as well as the overwhelming consumer acceptance of botanicals as tools for health support. “I think the thing that's been the most amazing has been the growth of the size of the entire dietary supplement industry, as well as the extent of consumer acceptance of these products,” he said. “They have become so mainstream and are so ubiquitously available that it's remarkable, not necessarily ‘surprising,’ [but] welcome, nonetheless.”
As for what the next 25 years might hold for the industry, Mr. Blumenthal said maintaining supply chain integrity will be crucial. “One of the biggest problems in the industry is supply chain integrity, particularly with respect to botanical raw materials, extracts and essential oils that are being intentionally adulterated,” he said. “If some of the materials used in consumer products are not what they are labeled to be, or if they are present at a significantly decreased level that creates a situation where the material cannot provide the actions/benefits that are reasonably expected by the consumer (and/or his/her health practitioner, in cases where some of these products are recommended and/or sold by health practitioners), then this industry, and the entire natural medicine community have a big problem.”
To that end, ABC created a consortium of non-profits including the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia and the University of Mississippi's National Center for Natural Product Research called the ABC-AHP-NCNPR Botanical Adulterants Program to help educate members of the North American and international botanical industry on these problems. “In doing this, we hope to be able to provide manufacturers with the information they need to be aware of known adulterants, relevant and valid methods for authentication and detection, as well as ways to protect themselves from being defrauded by an unscrupulous supplier,” said Mr. Blumenthal. “Even though we have little illusion that we can eliminate this problem, we do believe we can have a positive impact on responsible elements of the industry, and, in fact, with respect to the four papers we've published in this program thus far, we know that are having a positive impact. Ultimately, our goal is that more consumers will be able to purchase more products that are properly manufactured i.e., containing a higher level of authentic ingredients, and derive health benefits from them, which is what consumers want in the first place.”
Mr. Blumenthal said that despite all of the work ABC has done in the last quarter decade, there’s plenty more to be done. “It would be easy to look back at all we’ve accomplished so far and think, ‘We’re already doing so much for the herbal community,’ and not push ourselves to do more,” he said. “But the drive to do more than the status quo is integral to the spirit of ABC. I look forward to everything we will do in our 25th year and beyond for the next decades.”